Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

July 07, 2006

A New Hebrew Grammar

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the differences between formal English grammar and dialectic English grammar. Now, I've never actually studied English grammar before so I am prepared to stand corrected in much (if not all) of what I am about to say. Nonetheless, it appears evident to me that there are a couple of very simple rules when it comes to the usage of prepositions: don't start a sentence with them, and don't end a sentence with them. The following are incorrect English sentences:

"To the citadel, gentlemen!"
"For king and country!"
"Who were you speaking to?"
"Where is he from?"

The first two sentences commenced with a preposition ('to', 'for') and the second two ended with a preposition ('to', 'from'). If I were to be writing an essay, I would alter each of these sentences to:

"Let us advance to the citadel, gentlemen!"
"We fight for king and country!"
"To whom were you speaking?"
"From where (whence?) is he?"

Each of the above sentences (despite the archaic use of the accusative in the final one) is now grammatically correct - in accordance with the aforementioned rules of formal English grammar. But, dialectically speaking (is there any other way?), the former sentences were correct as well. Literary convention these days also allows me to write the sentences as they initially appeared, so long as I indicate the fact that they are direct speech.

Another example of where dialectic English grammar may find its way into a formal text is where the clause in question constitutes a fixed expression. The following two examples would indicate two expressions utilising this phenomenon:

"Over my dead body!"
"I honked like mad but the bugger cut in!"

Well, maybe that last one doesn't constitute an expression in its entirety, but "cut in" certainly exists as a verb in its own right, when speaking about driving a car. There is no way that I can alter either of the above sentences to produce something formally 'correct'.

Now, all this is by way of an introduction.
When studying Classical Hebrew literature, scholars have a habit of formalising the grammar. Rules are developed and then, in the situations where those rules no longer hold, further categories are delineated that allow for these aberrations. At the end of the day, what we are left with is a gigantic corpus of syntactic formulae, to which the ancient Israelite supposedly adhered when penning his or her texts. This seems odd.

Gary Rendsburg of Rutgers University pioneered the notion that the Bible testifies to a variety of 'grammars'. He isolated regional variations (chiefly, Israelian and Judahite Hebrew), and also went so far as to say that Hebrew itself was a diglossic language. This means that, like Arabic, Hebrew had one system of rules for writing, and another system of rules for speaking. In truth, it means even more than this. For Hebrew to be truly diglossic then it would constitute, like Arabic, one language for writing and another language entirely for speaking. But let's not get too carried away.

Rendsburg also argued that certain texts within the Bible give away this manner of speaking. My favourite example of this phenomenon was not first noticed by Rendsburg, but is nonetheless one of the examples that he brings. It appears in the first book of Samuel (1 Sam 9:10-13) and takes place when the devastatingly handsome Saul approaches a gaggle of young girls to enquire after the whereabouts of the prophet Samuel. Their answer is ridiculous and reminds me of the terrible habit that people from Shenkin St, Tel-Aviv, have of ending every sentence with כאילו.

The 'confused syntax' as manifested in their answer to Saul was taken by many scholars as being proof of the fact that this story had undergone extensive editorial revision and that the finished product was moreso the work of a committee, so to speak, than the polished prose of a single author. On the contrary, however, this marvellous example of girlish chatter can actually be read as being both highly polished and, it must be noted, somewhat satirical. All struggling to answer the handsome Saul at once, the author depicts them as actually speaking in unison. This is not formal Hebrew grammar of course, but it does constitute an example of what may have been dialectic Hebrew grammar.

So, what is my point? The lesson that I have taken from all this is that I should stop being such a 'grammar Nazi'. So quick to correct the syntactic errors of others, I seem to forget the true value of letting one's own self shine through accidentally in prose. Without such glorious slip-ups, the world in 2,000 years may indeed know nothing of how twentieth century Australians spoke. And, after all, is that not what we're writing for?


At 1:19 AM , Blogger Daniel said...

Your article looked so forlorn that I though I would leave a comment. I don't have much to contribute to the topic, except that you're right, in a sense, about the fact that "cut in" acts like a verb. Linguists call it a "phrasal verb", and it's very common. Consider the difference between: "I moved into the right line in order to turn off the road"; and "I moved toward the bathroom in order to turn off the light". In the first, "turn off" is a verb and a preposition (in fact, "off" heads the prepositional phrase "off the road"). In the second, "turn off" is a phrasal verb. An indicating test sometimes used is whether you can play with word order - if you can, it's probably a phrasal verb. As such, you can turn the light off, but you can't turn the road off. Phrasal verbs are also the source of many an (otherwise inexplicable) anomaly of language - for instance, you've got to cut the tree down before you can cut the tree up. Ah, language. Ain't it grand?

At 11:28 AM , Blogger Simon Holloway said...

But not every phrasal verb can be rearranged around the object: the example you gave ("turn off [the light]") happened to be transitive. My example ("[he just] cut in") happened to be intransitive. Maybe I need to think of another example, actually, because the origin of "cut in" is probably "cut in front (of me)", in which case the preposition was initially serving as the head of a prepositional phrase...

The alarm in our house went off a while ago due to having been tampered with (long story). My sister was the only person home at the time and it stressed her out, causing her to forget the combination and thus extend its incessant screeching by the time it took for one of our kindlier neighbours to come over and fix the problem. Afterwards, I made reference (in her presence) to the fact that our alarm had gone off that day. She looked truly baffled:

"No... the alarm went ON!"
And she's quite right.

At 3:28 AM , Anonymous Joel Nothman said...

The nonsense of not ending sentences with prepositions may be something you do in essays, or while being a grammar Nazi, but are certainly not standard English grammar. It is a relic of people trying to force Latin grammar rules onto English- and it simply doesn't work well, as Winston Churchill pointed out, "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put." See for instance http://www.listeninglib.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19991013

As to your final issue of no one knowing what Aussie English really sounded like - well, we've finally found a use for reality TV!

At 11:25 AM , Anonymous Joel Nothman said...

Btw, I thought you might want to know that I've joined the blogosphere. I'll only have a little bit of Hebrew/Semitics in it, but also a bit of travel-blogging and anything else that catches my interest. www.joelnothman.com

At 4:53 PM , Blogger Simon Holloway said...

Nice one! Added to my links :-)

(And thanks for the Churchill quote: that's priceless)

At 12:34 AM , Blogger John Cowan said...

A good quotation indeed, though its attribution to Churchill is apocryphal.

Here's a genuine Churchillism, his response in the House to claims that the position of certain laborers of Indian descent in Uganda was little better than slavery: "It is the opinion of His Majesty's Government that the use of the word 'slavery' in the fullest sense of the term would be a terminological inexactitude."
This reflects the fact that the word "lie" is unparliamentary, and if used will cause the Speaker to silence the speaker for that day.


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